20 November 2010

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis

I have really mixed feelings about Lydia Davis - I really liked Samuel Johnson is Indignant, and I HATED End of Story, to such an extent that I kind of started hating Lydia Davis. But now that some time has passed, I'm feeling less hostile. Not to the extent that I want to read any of her fiction, but to the point that I see her as a skilled prosaist who happens to be an annoying person. So I was actually quite excited to read her new translation of Madame Bovary, which I had read in college and not really appreciated, but suspected I would enjoy more now. There's been a fair amount of hubbub surrounding this new version, both as a reconsideration of the original work and as a translation. Julian Barnes has a rather whiny review of the translation that is, however, useful because it actually compares sentences from numerous versions. Barnes intends this to serve as evidence of the flaws in Davis' work, but honestly, in pretty much every case I disagree with him. I haven't read the original, but I'll tell you this - I think this translation is phenomenal. I think Davis' slightly sterile, cold yet ornate prose is perfectly suited to this work. I was completely bowled over by the beauty of the language in the novel, which I did not remember at all in my earlier reading. It's exquisite.

As for the novel itself, it's a masterpiece. Very interesting contrast to Anna Karenina, which I read not so long ago. I think it might require, as a prerequisite, a certain amount of pre-existing appreciation for 19th century fiction. But it's a really gorgeous novel, and incredibly dense and fascinating. I could talk about it for days, but I think I'm going to refrain and get back to work. I'll just say this - it's a fascinating study in irony and narration (which its deservedly famous for), but also in happiness, illusions, emotion, and habit. Very much worth reading.

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